By Felix Soh
ANTHONY Zuiker, who created one of the most successful TV-series franchise, CSI, has a brilliant mind. He also has a sick mind.
These two qualities of his have been giving me nightmares lately.
That's because he has combined both of them into a new, ground-breaking project that he calls a digi-novel, Level 26: Dark Origins, which I devoured in one gulp.
Zuiker may have struck gold with his three-book, multi-million-dollar project.
The digi-novel form, which is targeted at the YouTube generation, combines print, video and the Internet to offer a seamless experience of the plot and the characters that populate it.
Here's how it works. You read the story about a rogue FBI investigator, Steve Dark, hunting an elusive serial killer who's so terrifying that he is the only one in the world to be ranked at Level 26. The villain, nicknamed Sqweegel, makes Hannibal Lecter look like a lamb.
After every 20 pages or so, readers get a code to unlock a two- to three-minute video - called a cyber-bridge - that not only enhances the plot and characters, but also continues the plot, revealing details that are not in the book. It can be a horror scene, a love scene, or even a music video.
You can access the videos through the Level 26 website or, if you have an iPhone or iPod, you can click on the YouTube link (you can buy the Level 26 app for US$12.99, or S$18, from the iTunes store).
The videos are not shoddy, amateurish productions. They are slick, CSI-style episodes with actors like Daniel Buran (CSI), Bill Duke (Cold Case) and Michael Ironside (Terminator Salvation) who play characters in the book. The videos are directed by Zuiker himself.
It's a brilliant innovation. For instance, you need not over-tax your imagination to experience how frightening a killer Sqweegel is.
You see him in the flesh, so to speak, staring at you with his lifeless, beady eyes hidden behind a white latex shroud. The videos in which he appears make you jump out of your skin. Yes, it's that palpable - and scary.
The cinematic experience makes you connect more with the characters, like the tortured hero whose career, family and soul are destroyed by his obsession with Sqweegel, whom he has been unsuccessful in nabbing in a 20-year manhunt.
There's more than just the videos. The Level 26 website builds a community of readers who discuss the book, take part in contests and get updates and other information.
It's a triple platform: Book, videos and an interactive fan website, designed by the creators of lonelygirl15, the popular teenage blogger who turned out to be fiction.
Commenting on the digi-novel form, Zuiker said: "Level 26 is horror prime drama. We feel that with how fast things are moving with technology, to ask someone to read 20 pages and then see a visual continuance is a good rhythmic experience, rather than read 400 pages and do nothing else."
But this digi-novel genre is not a perfect one. If you are reading the physical book, or even when you are reading the e-book version on the Kindle (which I did), it becomes irritating having to move to your laptop and access a video after every 20 pages.
It's a refreshing novelty with the first video but, by the time you reach the 10th, the novelty wears off and it becomes a chore.
The plot and characterisation could also have been stronger. The excessive melodrama makes it all seem unreal and leaves an unsatisfying taste in the mouth.
But, still, the digi-novel form does grow on you. You can get addicted easily. The second book, Level 26: Doppelganger Of Darkness, is due out next year.
A second Sqweegel will return. Expect more nightmares and sleepless nights.
For more my paper stories click here.